Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


Essays of Undoing

Terry Tempest Williams




Not long ago, a friend visited us from New York City, planning to stay several days in the desert. But after her first night, we awoke in the morning and found her with her bags packed, standing at the front door. She had changed her plane ticket for an early return to Manhattan. Her last words to us as she left were “Aren’t you afraid you will be forgotten?”

What I wanted to say but didn’t was “I hope so.”

None of us see landscape the same.

Each of us finds our identity within the communities we call home. My delight in being forgotten is rooted in the belief that I don’t matter in the larger scheme of things, only that I tried my best to be a good human, failing repeatedly, but trying again with the soul-settling knowledge that my body will return to the desert.

Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story of a beloved professor who had the initials NYS written behind his name. It stood for “not yet soil.” Amen.

For those of us who live in arid country, red dust devils as commonplace as sage sandblast any notion of self-importance right out of us.

Yet still, we forget.

I write to remember.

It is dark, the sun has yet to rise, and a candle is lit on my desk. It is the last day of the year, a difficult year, and I am up early, unable to sleep. People often ask how we can stay buoyant in the face of loss, and I don’t know what to say except the world is so beautiful even as it burns, even as those we love leave us, even as we witness the ravaging of land and species, especially as we witness the brutal injustices and deep divisions in this country—as exemplified by the separation of families seeking asylum at the southern border; the blatant racism exposed in Charlottesville; or the students’ encounter with a Native elder drumming at the Indigenous March in Washington, D.C. The erosion of democracy and decency feels like a widening crack on the face of Liberty.

And now, the coronavirus reminds us how vulnerable we are, how connected we are worldwide.

How do we not fall into a perpetual state of despair?

My father said to me the other day, “We have to stare it down.” It being grief. It being everything he can’t control, like age, the waning strength in his legs, or the loss of another son.

I am aware that we hold a multitude of emotions at once. They are not contradictory; they are siblings. One minute I can hardly breathe—and in the next, I am in gales of laughter. Humor is the match I strike to see where I must go, especially when my vision is blurred by sorrow.

Just the other day, I had to leave a lecture I was asked to attend, “Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Practices of Tantric Sex Among Stick Figures” or something like that. It wasn’t that the lecture lacked compelling material—it was that I didn’t have the bandwidth to absorb the information. For me, it became esoteric chatter. I was ready to explode. I tried to discreetly exit the room and quietly close the door behind me. But the second I stepped outside I broke into wails of laughter—what I think the Brits call “corpsing,” when you laugh at a nonhumorous performance. One of my fellow residents at the Center for the Study of World Religions (which we lovingly call “God’s Motel”) heard my hysteria and followed me upstairs to my apartment to see if I was okay. She couldn’t tell if I was laughing or crying, and in truth neither could I. All I knew in that moment was the rising pressure of too many minutiae, too many bloodless words, and no air for me to breathe—a feeling brought on when a small group of people talk only to themselves.

After the event was over, I stood outside and howled like a coyote, a way to release my pent-up energy. At my core, I am feral. This is how I survive. With a family name like Tempest, I can only contain myself for so long until an eruption occurs: anger, joy, irreverence, love.

These essays are my howl.

Like the red rock desert before me, I, too, am eroding. Nothing fixed. Nothing static. Only a steady state of flux. I live by disturbances. They keep me awake, a physical stay against complacency. This is my privilege and preference living in the outback of southern Utah.

If you have been here, you understand it is a place of sand so hot in the summer, bare feet burn. If you have not yet encountered the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, it might surprise you to learn that rivers freeze in winter, looking like shattered glass. In spring, we are drawn to the river’s edge before we realize we are being sucked into the depths by quicksand, stuck, immobile, the future food of vultures.

In the desert, I try to stay alert. Mistakes are costly. Home is the place of my attention.

For now, I am migratory—living in Utah half the year and working at the Harvard Divinity School the rest, an unexpected surprise that came when I was in my own depths of undoing, unknowing what was next.

I am learning to trust.

I am learning to pray again, not in the way I was taught as a child, but in all the ways the desert has taught me to listen.

I am trying to stay open to what is coming, understanding that uncertainty is the way of the world.

And I am growing more comfortable with waiting, watching, being patient and impatient until, in the middle of the night, when most people are asleep, the hours when owls fly, I make my move. What I once believed to be madness I have come to see as night vision—what every animal knows as it remains vigilant in darkness, moving freely in the shadows. I will find my way into new country that beckons me to take unexpected risks, which turn out not to be risks at all, but the next step.

There are practices I turn to: morning mind is the gift that comes after dreaming. If I have asked my psyche a question the night before, by dawn the answer is waiting for me. Rarely does this received information deceive me, and it is usually accompanied by a moment of awakening in the living world.

A chevron of geese will fly past our window. Canada geese. I hear them first and see them second. Sound shapes our perceptions in inexplicable ways. On another day, I noted the snapping of wings; it was a dragonfly whose name I learned is meadowhawk. Our windows are always open. Wildness enters our home.

This got me thinking about wings. I remembered a photograph taken by Lukas Felzmann. The image is of a human figure casting a long shadow that appears to be attached to a large wing made of mirrors lying on the sand. The figure’s arms are raised, hands open, fingers splayed, creating the impression that this shadow body is about to take flight.

I don’t know why this image flew into my mind on that particular morning, followed by the word “imago,” but I took it seriously and sought definitions:


1. Entomology

The final and fully developed adult stage of an insect, typically winged.

2. In biology, the imago is the last stage an insect attains during its metamorphosis, its process of growth and development; it also is called the imaginal stage, the stage in which the insect attains maturity.

3. image

4. Psychoanalysis

An unconscious idealized mental image of someone which influences a person’s behavior.

Words fly into our minds when the unconscious is trying to speak to us.

Great horned owls are speaking to me now. All summer long they called to each other between dusk and dawn. Robins and chickadees mobbed them repeatedly and chattered from cottonwood trees, giving the location of the owls away. But the owls would not be deterred.

Last summer, Brooke and I were seated on the porch in a bit of an argument. He said that I was too immersed in politics—“obsessed” was the word he used—and that it wasn’t healthy. He said I was preoccupied, “unavailable,” and that I needed to step away and find “a balance.” I looked at him and said, “I am preoccupied and you’re right, it’s not healthy. What isn’t healthy is that the Endangered Species Act is under attack, what isn’t healthy is that our public lands are under assault, with Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments gutted and open for business. Of course I’m obsessed. I understand what you’re saying, but where’s the balance against insanity?

“We have to keep fighting,” I argued. “It’s not just about our species—”

Just then, a great horned owl flew toward us—at eye level—and banked before it could strike my face. The ferocity and focus of the owl left us speechless and shaking. I looked at Brooke, his eyes brimming with tears.

I stepped off the porch. I had to find the owl. There she was—perched on the peak of the roof above us. Her large yellow eyes reflected the last light of day. She didn’t blink, just stared—and then, she flew.

* * *

Imagine a place where wind carves rock into canyons of light. Imagine a place where time is told in the stratigraphy of stone. Imagine a place where sandstone arches dare ravens to fly through them. And if your imagination were an exercise in ground truthing, you would be standing in the erosional landscape of the Colorado Plateau. It is here where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet in a common boundary point known as the Four Corners. In the harsh arid heart of the American Southwest, one drinks deeply from this wellspring of wonder, especially in drought.

When the word “occupy” infiltrated our language from Wall Street to Washington, D.C., to our own town squares in the name of resistance, I thought about what it means to occupy a place—to take root and stay.

“How one walks through the world, the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things,” Elaine Scarry writes.

I recall a river trip I took down the Grand Canyon. This excursion was sponsored by the Utah Museum of Natural History. I was working there as curator of education and was on the trip as the naturalist guide. It was a group of twelve, some of whom I knew, most of whom I did not. The common denominator among the participants was a shared interest in learning more about the Grand Canyon and coming to a deeper understanding of geologic time.

The first group action was agreeing to take off our watches.

Three days into the trip, traveling downriver, we were about to encounter our first set of serious rapids. Adrenaline started flowing and our boatman began to yawn, a sure sign he was getting pumped for what was coming. We were told to sit low in the boat, tighten our life vests, and observe where the ropes were tied in for handholds should we need them when the raft entered the white water. We were also encouraged to keep our bodies loose, not rigid, and move with the flow of the water. The boatman and his swamper, both highly skilled, would guide us through.

We could hear the roiling waters up ahead and see mist rising from the rapids on what appeared like a ledge. The force of the river seemed to be gaining momentum, a swift-moving slipstream funneling into what is referred to as “the tongue” of the river, defined as “the smooth ‘V’ of fast water found at the head of rapids.” The boatman at the back of the raft, maneuvering with the motor, was focused straight ahead, steering the boat down the center of the river until we dropped into the rapids, disappeared momentarily into deep holes, recovered, only to face immense standing waves that curled over us, drenching our screams. The boatman beautifully finessed the rapids and rock gardens we were racing through—and then, before any of us could grasp what was happening, one of the participants, a middle-aged man, call him Paul, stood up in the bow, made a cross with his arms outstretched on either side of his body, and tried to hurl himself into the dangerous white water. Several of those closest to him grabbed his life vest while others hung on to his ankles and pulled him back into the boat. He collapsed on top of us, heaving and crying. And then the rapids subsided, and we all grew quiet as the raft floated through the flat water.

Paul had tried to kill himself. We learned this sitting in a circle after dinner that night. He said this had been his sole motivation for coming on the trip. No one spoke, until a senior woman said, “That is your choice, but do it on your time, not ours. This isn’t going to happen under our watch.”

Every day for the next ten days, someone was by Paul’s side, talking with him, listening, sitting with him on the boat, holding his arm gently as they walked up a side canyon. I watched the twelve participants taking care of one another, not just Paul. On the last night, he apologized to the group, saying how this had been an honest reckoning of his life and what a transformative experience it had been for him. It was transformative for all of us.

We will all be forgotten. This does not frighten me. What I do fear day to day is who am I forgetting.

I think back to that moment on the river often, reflecting on how important community is to our survival and the amount of work it takes to support each other—and what we lose if we don’t. I think about the people who would have grabbed my arms or held on to my ankles if I had wanted simply to surrender to the rapids. My friends wouldn’t have let me. They would remind me where I belonged: back in the boat, floating downriver. To belong to a place and a group of people saves our lives. Without that, we lose sight of this precious gift called life.

Every day, I am astonished by what I see, smell, taste, touch, and hear. What I have learned in the face of a flash flood is to seek higher ground. When the fires come, leave quickly. The only recourse we have living in these dynamic places of wild beauty is to respect them. The only agenda in the broken rubble of a collapsing sandstone wall is to let go.

But I don’t want to let go.

The way of the world is telling us that our desire to protect wild places has gotten in the way of business. With a wholesale rush toward energy development, public lands in the American West are feeling the relentless pressure of oil and gas extraction, which includes all the infrastructure required: the razing of land, the building of roads, the apparatus for drilling and fracking, and the water raid needed for tar sand processing. Add the construction of compression and distribution centers, pipelines, and housing for fossil fuel workers, alongside a renewed interest in uranium mining and strip mining for coal—a dying industry in the era of climate change—and you begin to see a collapse of wholeness and health of the land that is taxing the integrity of our communities.

As Tim Egan wrote in The New York Times on March 30, 2019, “Almost twenty-five percent of American earth-warming emissions originate from industrial action involving public land or offshore leases.”

The debate over the noblest and wisest use of our public lands, particularly the red rock wilderness in Utah, dates back to the New Deal. In 1936, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes had a vision of protecting everything south of I-70 in the state of Utah, setting aside close to seven thousand square miles of crimson canyons, buttes, and mesas, and the desert rivers that drain into them—including the Virgin, the Dirty Devil, the San Juan, the Green, and the mighty Colorado, which now deposits close to fifty million tons of sand and sediment into the Lake Powell reservoir on a yearly basis. Ickes wanted to call it the Escalante National Monument; his bold visionary act would have expanded our nation’s commitment to protecting our natural heritage for the generations to come.

But there was strong opposition. Those who opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior cried foul, in the name of protecting not land but what the land is used for: mining, grazing, and commercial development. And then when World War II began, the conversation ceased in favor of national security.

But beauty has its own power, and it lives inside the minds of those who have been touched by its magnetic pull. Stewart Udall was among those who loved Utah’s canyonlands. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Udall as his secretary of the interior, and Udall immediately picked up the banner of Ickes’s cause. The uncommon grace of the sandstone canyons that held the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers in place became a priority for Udall’s vision of expanding the national park service.

It’s a well-known story where I come from, the stuff of folklore: Secretary Udall was at a meeting in Arizona with Floyd Dominy, the chief of the Bureau of Reclamation, who asked Udall if he wanted a ride to Colorado in a private plane. Udall said yes. Dominy instructed his pilot to take a detour along the Colorado River at ten thousand feet above the canyon country. He had a captive audience with the secretary. As they flew over the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, Dominy turned to Udall: “This is where I want to build the next dam.” Udall saw a national park.

Copyright © 2019, 2020 by Terry Tempest Williams

Copyright © 2019 by Ross Donihue and Marty Schnure, Maps for Good